The Post-Rock Star World

Steve Jobs was undoubtedly a rock star in the business world. His ability to innovate and reinvent entire categories is unparalleled. He got people excited about phones, he convinced people to pay for music once again, and he moved his beautifully-designed niche computers into the mainstream. He got us excited about The Beatles. The Beatles! He made the entire industry more competitive, and companies that should seem creative and responsive look as though they are up to their boot tops in molasses by comparison.

Jobs prided himself on ignoring market research and formal strategic planning processes. And even though he was obsessive about managing the customer experience, he generally ignored what that customer wants, firmly believing the observation (attributed to Henry Ford) that “If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘A faster horse.'” Like all good disruptors, he changed the game: when the world was demanding more and more processing power for computers,  he decided that what people really needed was a stripped-down, portable tablet. He wasn’t wrong.

There are very few visionaries on this planet: fewer still who  are able to  capture the imagination of the public and their employees, and create value out of what seems like thin air. People like Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson and Steve Jobs are hard to replace, as professional managers — even those at the very top of their game — rarely bring the same level of passion to the job that seems ingrained in a founder’s DNA.

In 2008, Fortune magazine interviewed Steve Jobs and asked him how Apple would do without him: “We’ve got really capable people at Apple. I made Tim [Cook] COO and gave him the Mac division and he’s done brilliantly. I mean, some people say, ‘Oh, God, if [Jobs] got run over by a bus, Apple would be in trouble.’ And, you know, I think it wouldn’t be a party, but there are really capable people at Apple. And the board would have some good choices about who to pick as CEO. My job is to make the whole executive team good enough to be successors, so that’s what I try to do.”

Given that Jobs often spoke in hyperbole, his answer seemed tepid. Cook seems like a highly capable CEO, but all too often rock star leaders like Jobs are not particularly adept at succession planning. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, describes this style of leadership as  the “genius with 1000 helpers”. Companies like Apple that serve as a “platform for the talents of an extraordinary individual” can run into trouble when that extraordinary individual leaves. Geniuses “seldom build great management teams, for the simple reason that they don’t need one, and often don’t want one.” When they depart, the company often stumbles.

Apple would be wise to take a page from companies that survived after the founder stepped down. There was, after all, a time when it was hard to contemplate Walmart without Sam Walton, Disney without Walt, or Sony without Akio Morita, but they all pulled through and saw great leaders like Michael Eisner and Norio Ohga flourish. The challenge will be to try to preserve what Jobs created — Apple’s Appleness, if you will — and continue to produce a suite of highly-desireable, beautifully-designed, innovative products and provide a customer experience second-to-none. Jobs’s successor will have to find a way to do this without simply attempting to mimic Jobs’s unique management style. Collins warns the rock star’s successors about this trap, which he bluntly labels: “trying to act like a genius, without being a genius.” In other words, if Cook starts to don black mock-necks and march around like a despot, no one will stick around.

While most of the “geniuses” Collins observed did not put a good succession plan in place, it’s never wise to underestimate Mr. Jobs. Just as he foresaw a purse-sized computer and an entire music and movie collection on a pocket-sized device, it’s likely he foresaw his departure too. Over the past few years, Apple has moved from niche to mainstream, has established itself as an industry leader, and has established a highly profitable business model. Jobs’s role as the iconoclastic underdog could not be sustained indefinately given the company’s huge success. new perspective might be exactly what is required to guide the company through its next phase.

Jobs and Apple will be forever intertwined and his legacy will be enduring. As Dumbledore said, in the second Harry Potter film, when it looked as though he was being deposed as leader of Hogwarts: “I shall never truly be gone unless none here are loyal to me.” Apple would be smart to stay loyal to Jobs’s continual push for excellence and his passion for beautiful design. The rest, however, can evolve until one day Apple is practically unrecognizable. Presumably the game-changing, ever-innovating leader would have wanted it that way…